How Not To Do A Showcase

The weather’s supposed to have broken, but it hasn’t.  What has broken is the air con and the signalling on my train, and I arrive in central London sweating and hassled.  This time next year, all being well, I’ll have graduated with my MA Dramatic Writing from Central Saint Martins, and will be up to my ears in meetings with agents and producers who’ve been wowed by my showcase and who want to pay me, or get someone else to pay me, to write stuff. So this year it seemed important to suss out how a showcase is/should be done.  The CSM showcase isn’t til September, so I’m off to see the competition. 

The venue, according to google maps, is only 5 minutes walk from the tube, so that’s good.  Except I can’t find it.  I check the ticket – no instructions.  I check the venue website – a useless map.  I finally arrive with one minute to go, and compare notes grumpily with several others who have been marching up and down the back streets of Soho for twenty minutes. I walk in, smiling expectantly at the guy on the door.  Is he the guy on the door? Or is he just standing in the doorway? He kind of half smiles at me, I think, and I still don’t know if he’s host or guest.  Still, at least there’s drinks.  What’s the deal, do we just help ourselves or..? I hover, hoping the door guy will notice and say something like ‘Can I get you a drink?’ or ‘Please, help yourself.’ or even ‘Hello.’  Nope. Nothing.  I might be a producer, or an agent, for all he knows.  Doesn’t he want to know? Doesn’t anyone want to know?  Weird.  Anyway, so I’ll just help myself then, to … Ah. A plastic cup of warm white wine.  Yeah, okay, I know, students, budgets etc – but how much is a bag of ice? And you can borrow glasses from supermarkets for nothing.  I collect my cup of warm wine, take my seat and have a look at the programme, which has mini biogs of the writers, and the actors, but nothing about their scripts or what else they might be writing/want to write.

Ten minutes late, we begin.  A guy gets up and introduces the actors, slightly apologetically.  I was expecting to hear something about the course, the students, but no, we launch straight in with the first of ten extracts.  The actors do a great job, despite the unbearable heat, but even so it’s a struggle to concentrate.  By half time I’m fantasising about running away to an air-conditioned bar and ordering a pint of anything cold just so I can hold the pint glass against various bits of my sweaty body.  Several people do leave, but I decide to stick it out, in solidarity with the writers whose work has yet to be read.  It’s quite hard work for all concerned, and I’m reminded how screenplays really don’t lend themselves to being listened to, especially not ten in a row. 

On the train afterwards I make actual notes, quite cross ones, with a lot of underlining and exclamation marks.  When I get home my husband asks how it was.  I tell him, and he says ‘Oh well, at least you know how not to do it.’ And he’s right.  So here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  • Tell people about it

It’s been surprisingly difficult to find out when showcases are on.  There’s not really any excuse in this day and age, yet it’s surprising how many university websites are completely out of date and how few courses make use of social media to publicise what ought to be an important event in the calendar of agents, production companies, scouts.  People won’t come if they don’t know about it.

  • Tell people how to find it  

Your venue might be in an obscure place and that’s fine – but please, give us a clue – a map, some useful directions, balloons, a big sign…

  • Make us as comfortable as possible

Never underestimate the power of an ice cold beer especially in a teeny, sweltering venue full of hot, sticky bodies.  Warm white wine doesn’t cut it.  Investing in a plastic bin and a couple of bags of ice would be a great use of an undoubtedly limited budget: if you can thrust a cold drink into someone’s hand when they turn up to your teeny, sweltering venue they will genuinely love you forever.

  • Say hello

Course Leaders, you’ve got all these people in front of you.  Now’s the perfect time to promote the course.  There might be people in the audience who are thinking of applying, or whose children or acquaintances are thinking of applying.  Industry professionals are often asked for advice by would-be writers: you want them to be able to say ‘I went to this fantastic showcase – they were super friendly and professional, and really seemed to know their stuff. The work was great and the students I spoke to said it was a really good course. Introduce yourself.  Make connections. Be nice.

Graduates, all these people have turned up for you.  They want you to be great.  Some of them want to be able to hire you.  Say hello, offer drinks, introduce yourself.  Be nosy.  But polite, obviously.  Have cards, have a twitter handle (for your course and yourself), have a pen and paper.  Don’t be so busy chatting with your mates that you pay only cursory attention to the person waiting to congratulate you.  They might be an agent, or a scout from an indie. Or just somebody’s kind auntie. Whatever, be polite. Make connections.  Be nice.

  • Give a succinct, relevant intro

This is your pitch opportunity.  The one you’ve been building up to for at least a year, if not two.  You could learn it, couldn’t you? Hi, I’m …. and my piece is from a (TV pilot/screenplay/radio play/stage play etc) called ………  would work for me.  The showcase I went to used the same four actors for every reading. Great.  Each writer spent at least a minute telling us who was going to be playing which character. Not great.  We can work it out.  TMI.  They could have used that minute to tell us the genre of their piece and give us a one-line. in fact, now I think about it, not a single person gave me that.  There were plenty of long-winded explanations, but actually what I really want to know is ‘This is a story about so and so, who wants such and such, but this thing or this person is in the way.’ Then I’m interested.  Which brings me to…

  • Choose an excerpt where something interesting happens!!

Yeah, sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised.  It doesn’t reflect particularly well on either the writer or the teacher when any basic internet research will tell you what you need to put in your 10pp.  There seems to be a thing at the moment for people to be able to submit extracts from anywhere in the work, where previously it’s always been the first 10pp.  But given that most industry people will read the first ten, it would seem sensible to concentrate on making them so good the audience is dying to know what happens next.  They will then seek you out afterwards and be delighted to hear you tell them. 

  • Be supportive of your colleagues

Don’t sit at the back chatting throughout someone else’s work.  Rude.  Scriptwriting is a collaborative process which means being respectful and supportive of others in the room. 

  • Follow it up

… with those who are there and those who aren’t.  Dear Agent, It was lovely to meet you at my showcase, thank you so much for coming.  I’d love to send you the script… or Dear Agent, I’m sorry you couldn’t make it to my showcase. I’d love to send you the script … 

  • Engage the audience and keep them engaged

This is the tricky one.  I have discovered that screenplays are not easy to listen to, especially not lots of them in a row (which is going to be a problem for our cohort as there’s loads of us).  I have no idea what the answer is.  Give the audience scripts? Roles, even? Have visual prompts? Paint the picture for us first?  I don’t know.  I’m going to keep thinking, and asking.  Fortunately I have almost a year to work it out…

The Central St Martins MA Dramatic Writing showcase will take place at Central St Martins next June/July, details to be confirmed.  I can guarantee there will be ice cold beer, even if I have to buy it myself.

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